Today, Sojourners is launching a new project called Emerging Voices, and it’s one of the most exciting things I have been involved with for a long time. It aims to mentor, develop, and promote the most dynamic up-and-coming communicators — speakers, preachers, and teachers — who so clearly are called to lead and publicly articulate the biblical call to social justice.
The vision for this project is exciting and something to be celebrated. It also calls to mind a critical observation: Our world often wants saviors, not prophets; new messiahs, not leaders.
We want heroes with superhuman strength who save the day, not mere mortals who speak the truths we typically don’t want to hear. Even the modern day giants of social justice — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi, for example —were at best prophets, but never saviors.
It’s easy to slip into the mentality that one person, one voice will rise up in a generation, and that he or she will change the world as we know it. Perhaps we even think, “Maybe I will change the world.”
King spoke of this temptation as the “drum major instinct.” This is the basic desire of humans to lead the charge, and ultimately, reap the recognition — or, at the very least, to place our confidence in a single human being.
Two months before his assassination, King warned his listeners at his home church of Ebenezer Baptist:
“When the church is true to its nature, it says ‘Whosoever will, let him come.’ And it is not supposed to satisfy the perverted use of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everyone should be the same, standing before a common master and savior.”
However, King understood that even if he were able to overcome, or at least suppress, this instinct within himself, others would still submit their wounds and place their dreams upon him. Envisioning his funeral, he said that if he were to be remembered as a drum major, then he would like to be remembered as a drum major for justice, for peace, and for righteousness.
The role of savior has already been filled, and the cross Jesus bore is the ultimate rejection of this human drum major instinct. That’s where Christians must always start.
Nevertheless, we still need prophets, leaders, and voices who point us in the direction of this hope. The whole 11th chapter of Hebrews is essentially a long list of “shout outs” to the men and women of the Hebrew Scriptures who persevered in their faith despite never receiving what was promised to them. Individually, these men and women are saintly celebrities, but together they form a “great cloud of witnesses,” which still inspires believers to run the race of faith and pursue the finish line of the Kingdom.
After 40 years in public ministry, I am feeling an urgent and personal call to help raise up and support the next generation of faithful leaders — a new cloud of witnesses — who are boldly and creatively heralding the biblical call to social justice. More and more of my time is spent mentoring these emerging leaders.
Placing our hopes in a single drum major has never been a faithful response, and it is also increasingly ineffective. The world is changing. Notably, in the United States somewhere between the years 2040 and 2050 we will no longer have a racial or ethnic majority. We need a multitude of fresh and culturally relevant voices that can address the challenge of faith and the common good within our diverse and complex society and, in particular, issue a prophetic call to the churches and to our society. We have formed a very hopeful and impressive circle of young leaders and we have already had a retreat together, which proved to be an extraordinary time.
I strongly encourage you to take a look at these communicators on our brand new website, www.emervoicesproject.org. Look at their faces, hear their stories, read what they have written. Consider inviting them to speak at your church, school, or public forum; join the conversation on their blogs; and glean insight from their books.
Ultimately, Emerging Voices aims to be unlike any other speaker platform that already exists. It’s intentionally diverse, particularly along the dimensions of race, ethnicity and gender; it’s collaborative as it seeks to build a community among its participants; it’s equipping as we want to help the participants to develop their unique calling and skills; and finally, and most importantly, it’s elevating a common vision of biblical justice not through a single voice, but through many.
I believe the Emerging Voices project is crucial for the future of the church and the world. Spending time with these emerging voices was deeply encouraging — both to me and to them — and gave me a powerful sense of the leadership they are already accomplishing. We all walked away with a real sense of hope and excitement about continuing our journey together.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.